The not-English muffin
Despite its name, the breakfast treat in fact originated in this country
What we refer to as an English muffin was born in the U.S. It was invented by an English immigrant, Samuel Bath Thomas. You may not know his name but certainly will recognize the name of the bakery he founded in New York in 1880: Thomas’ English Muffins. Originally called “toaster crumpets,” hotel dining rooms popularized this breakfast treat.
What the muffin man peddled in the British nursery rhymes is lost to history. Perhaps it was a crumpet or some other type of griddle cake; longtime teatime favorites there. Granted, our so-called English muffin bears some resemblance to a crumpet. A crumpet is round and cooked on a griddle like an English muffin but there the similarity ends. Crumpets are made from a batter leavened with baking soda rather than a yeast dough. They are only cooked on one side, served whole and the finished product is thin and full of holes.
Until the 1980s, our English muffins were virtually unknown in Great Britain. Thanks to the spread of multiculturalism, they are sold in their supermarket today, but labeled simply as “muffins.” (What we simply call “muffins” are there called “American muffins.”)
English muffins from the grocery store are always toasted since they aren’t fully baked when purchased. However, even homemade muffins (recipe follows) taste better toasted! Conventional wisdom dictates a fork be used to split them in half rather than slicing them with a knife. The logic behind this is that it creates an irregular surface that enhances the texture. In reality, no matter however you chose to halve your muffin, its unique taste is due to the many large holes caused by air bubbles in the dough.
Most English muffins look pretty much alike—about 3 inches in diameter and 1-inch thick. Wolferman’s are different. Born in Milwaukee in 1870, at age thirteen Fred Wolferman and his family moved to Kansas City, where his father mortgaged their house to purchase a bankrupt grocery. Five years later, Fred joined the now successful family business that had a reputation for selling only the finest foods. In 1910, he came up with the idea making the now trendy English muffins using tuna cans for a molds. His extra-thick English muffins were a hit and now come in several flavors (available at Metcalfe’s Market and by mail order).
The popularity of English muffins—regardless of what they’re called—is worldwide. They are an essential ingredient in the ubiquitous brunch dish, eggs Benedict, as well as sundry breakfast sandwiches.
Perhaps because of their relatively short history, English muffins are associated more with commercial bakeries rather than home baking. If you’re a true fan, however, you might want to try making your own. It takes a bit of time and work to be sure, but the end product is one you’ll want to savor simply toasted with butter and jam.
RECIPE: English Muffins
1 3/4 cups whole milk
3 tbsp unsalted butter
4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 envelope instant dry yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Semolina or farina
Combine the milk and butter in a small saucepan set over low heat. Heat until the butter melts. Remove from the heat.
In the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the flour, yeast, sugar, salt and baking soda. Turn the machine on to combine the dry ingredients. Add the egg and milk-butter mixture. Mix until a firm dough forms. The dough should be damp and velvety but not sticky.
Transfer to a floured board and roll out 1-inch thick. Use an English muffin ring (or a tuna can with both top and bottom removed) to cut out rounds of dough. Transfer each to a baking sheet dusted with semolina or farina. Dust the top of each mound with semolina or farina. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise for 20 minutes. (The muffins won’t rise much but will be puffy.)
Preheat oven 325 degrees. Heat a large cast iron skillet or griddle over low heat.
Cook the muffins on the hot griddle for about 7 minutes on each side or until brown. Transfer the muffins to the preheated 325-degree oven for about 10 minutes to dry them out. (Properly cooked muffins should register about 200°F when poked in the center with an instant-read thermometer.)
Split the muffins before toasting. Leftover muffins can be stored for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator in a sealed plastic bag.
Yield: 16 3- to 3 1/2-inch English Muffins